RSPB Dove Stone trial innovative new technique in peatland restoration

Willow harvested from Griffin wood and Blacktoft Sand driven into eroding peat edges at RSPB Dove Stone. Image by Toni Bradley, RSPB

Willow stakes which have kindly been donated by Griffin Wood and RSPB Blacktoft Sands will provide a natural solution to peat erosion at RSPB Dove Stone, Oldham. News item contributed by Callum Goff, RSPB.

On the 4th of March 2021, staff and volunteers from the RSPB based at Dove Stone (near Oldham) visited the Mersey Forest’s Griffin Wood to harvest willow to trial an innovative new technique in peatland restoration. This valuable resource added to the 800+ coppiced willow poles kindly donated by RSPB Blacktoft Sands (near Doncaster) to provide a natural solution to peat erosion, helping to improve water quality, reduce carbon emissions and allow nature to thrive. 

Peatlands are fantastic. They provide a home for rare and unique wildlife as well as acting like a giant sponge for carbon. Peat soils are formed in waterlogged conditions over thousands of years to create carbon rich soils comprised of partially decomposed organic matter. Amazingly, peatlands can contain up to 10 times the amount of carbon stored in an equivalent area of rainforest! The UK is home to nearly three million hectares of peatland, our greatest land-based carbon store. The majority of peatlands in the UK cover extensive areas known as blanket bog, a globally rare habitat that must be protected and cared for. This unique habitat provides nesting sites for wading birds such as Dunlin and Golden Plover. They are also home to some fascinating vegetation, such as the carnivorous sundew (which gobbles insects!) and remarkable sphagnum mosses that can hold up to 20 times their weight in water.

Sphagnum moss with common sundew

Sphagnum moss with common sundew. Image by Paul Turner.

However, due to atmospheric pollution and artificial drainage for agriculture and the extraction of horticultural peat, up to 80% of British peatlands are in a state of severe decline. When peat is left bare and dry it emits its precious stored carbon into the atmosphere. Furthermore, this dry peat is easily eroded by rainwater which cuts channels in the peat surface known as gullies.  ‘Peat hags’ are erosion features that occur at the edges of these gullies and at the moorland edge where blanket bog meets the hillslope. These features can create cycles of perpetual erosion where gullies continually deepen and recede releasing ever more carbon into the atmosphere and watercourses. Peatland degradation is a priority environmental issue in the Uplands of the UK that must be addressed if resilience to climate change is to be achieved. Innovation and learning through experimentation are an important part of this journey.

In response to this precarious situation the RSPB/United Utilities partnership at Dove Stone is restoring peatlands through revegetation of bare peat and the blocking of drainage channels and erosion features to raise the water table and return waterlogged conditions where carbon can once again be stored.

After extensive discussion with landowners and Natural England, the RSPB are trailing the use of live willow driven into the exposed peat along the moorland edge to prevent erosion. The hope is that the willow will form a network of roots that act like a net, holding the bare peat edge in place. The willow should create small pockets of wet scrub habitat around the moorland edge, where birds and insects can feed and take shelter from the harsh upland conditions. This project is funded by the Government's Green Recovery Challenge Fund, accessed through the Greater Manchester Environment Fund. The fund was developed by Defra and its Arm's-Length Bodies. It is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.

The theory for this technique is taken from studies of intact peatlands in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The deep peat soils found on hillslopes here formed around scrub vegetation, meaning it is part of the peat itself. The scrub acts to pin the waterlogged peat in place, preventing the slumping and erosion common in British peatlands. The trial is about replicating this natural phenomenon and stabilizing the very edge of the bog to reduce erosion, not about creating a bog forest. The scrubby, wet edges of these Argentinian bogs were once a natural part of a functioning blanket bog in the UK too.

In March, a small army of staff and volunteers travelled from Saddleworth to Griffin wood in St. Helens in a hunt for willow for this important trial. After an afternoon of hard graft, a truck load of live willow stakes were felled and processed into bundles ready for a new life in the moors. Over the following weeks this committed team worked hard in the cold and wet early spring weather to drive these stakes deep into the bare peat until they were flush with the ancient bedrock beneath. With a continued relationship with the Mersey Forest, it is hoped that willow harvested from Griffin Wood can help stabilize and enrich this important environment into the future.

Willow from Griffin Wood loaded onto a van and ready for a new life on the bog

Willow from Griffin Wood ready for a new life on the bog. Image by Toni Bradley, RSPB.

If you are interested in volunteering with the RSPB at Dove Stone to help with this important work, they will be carrying out regular volunteer work parties on Wednesdays and Fridays. For more information, please contact: callum.goff@rspb.org.uk

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